Friday, January 30, 2015 

Future now.

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Thursday, January 29, 2015 

You mean these ridiculously subjective rules apply to us as well?

It's hard not to feel at least a smidgen of sympathy for the good burghers behind the Durham free school and the Grindon Hall Christian school in Sunderland.  After all, what's the point of allowing any Tom, Dick or Toby Young to open up a new place of learning if they can't then attempt to instil whichever belief system they adhere to into their young charges?  If the parents want it, clearly they will come.  Who quite frankly is the government or Ofsted to stick their noses in and say a school in an overwhelmingly "White British" area is failing to "prepare its students for life in modern Britain"?  What is this outrageous political correctness being foisted on Christian and Jewish establishments when everyone knows the problem is with the Muslims?  Why is Durham free school having its funding pulled while the "Trojan Horse" schools remain open, albeit unable to recruit new teachers?

A weaker man would at the same time as feeling a twinge of sympathy also have a jolly good laugh.  From the very moment the panic over the schools in Birmingham erupted you could see this was going to happen.  There can't be one rule for schools in areas mostly populated by parents who, like it or not, might prefer education with an Islamic influence for their children, and another for those whom for whatever reason feel the need to bring God into it at every turn.  The fact the schools at the centre of the Trojan Horse affair did not specifically have a Islamic ethos and were rather academies is by the by: start insisting every child must know what British values are, despite the vast majority of adults not having the first clue, and you get the kind of results the Daily Mail has been wailing about.  Kids asked if they know anyone who's gay!  Girl possibly asked if she was a virgin!  Child who says "terrorism" when questioned about Islam branded a bigot!  Schools failed on the grounds of being Christian!

Except, typically, if you bother to read the reports on either school the whole "not preparing students for life in modern Britain" angle, while there, is rather secondary to the schools just not being any good in general.  The Durham free school's governors, damningly, are said to "place too much emphasis on religious credentials when they are recruiting key staff and not enough on seeking candidates with excellent leadership and teaching skills."  I mean, blimey, who could have predicted that might happen with free schools?  Much the same is said of Grindon Hall, where "Many appointments are made without fair and open competition."

This does not make Ofsted's approach, which seems to be to ask young children questions on things they might not have the first idea about for perfectly innocent reasons, a good one.  How can they possibly conclude an answer which indicates lack of preparation for life in modern Britain™ is a reflection of the school's citizenship efforts rather than that of their life outside of school?  Why should the onus be on the school and not on the parents anyway, or would that be a government interference too far?  Worth remembering is that for all the shock and horror over the schools in Birmingham, there was not the slightest evidence presented of active radicalisation or that extremism was being taught.  Cohesion, folks, is a two-way street.  If clinging on to religion in a country that's become secular is seen as marking you out as not wanting to be a part of modern Britain®, might I suggest it could be time to join forces rather than spit out the dummy and say it's not fair?

Most amusing of all is the idea the ultimate architect behind this nonsense, one senor Michael Gove, was trying "to promote a politically correct diversity agenda".  Yes, that's exactly what Mr Drain the Swamp was doing.  Ofsted has been essentially recreated in Gove's image, even though he's now been replaced by Nicky Morgan, who coincidentally voted against gay marriage partly on the basis of, you guessed it, her religious views, so clearly more evidence of bias there.  The wiser heads might have seen the way this was going and spoke out at the time, before the education of more children was disrupted.  Such though is the way of those determined to leave their mark, regardless of the consequences.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 

Trapped in the echo chamber.

At times, I wonder just how it was newspapers filled their pages when they couldn't dedicate multiple anguished pieces to either actors making a poor choice of word, or alleged celebrities Twitter-shaming litterers.  Then you remember there was never a halcyon period for newspapers, regardless of what anyone will tell you: the tabloids were always full of celebrity bilge, including Hugh Cudlipp's patrician Mirror.  As for the broadsheets, they were in the main drier than downtown Jeddah on a Saturday night.  Not for nothing was the ghastly but at least readable Express the world's biggest seller for a time.

Apparently then I must defend Katie Price's right to party to claim disability benefits for her son.  First they came for one of the most loathsome personalities of recent times, and so forth.  Alternatively, I could let her get on with it, as I'm sure dear old Jordan can look after herself, surely?  Much like Benedict Bandersnatch (that is his name, isn't it?) no doubt instantly regretted saying coloured, without it being necessary for writers to assume he couldn't have much contact with black actors if he was going around doing so.  As for Kirstie Allsopp, well, as the personification of just about everything that would quickly send me completely and utterly fucking doolally, if she wants to be so petty as to put a litterer's number plate online, does it really need further comment?

Of course it does.  And of course, it takes two or indeed dozens of sad acts for these mini-ripples to get anywhere in the first place.  Reading Jon Ronson's interview with Adam Curtis, which quickly digresses onto the topic of Ronson's upcoming book on those who've found themselves at the centre of online storms, it's easy to forget these incidents would have felt that much less serious had the mainstream media decided not to join in the stupidity.

Personally, despite everything that's come since, I reckon the apogee was reached in the days after that woman put that cat in that bin.  Why put the CCTV online in the first place?  I love animals as much as the next carnivore, but let's face it, far worse than spending a night in a bin is going to happen to most cats through their own ahem, curiosity.  Why demand answers as to why she put it in the bin?  Did it matter?  Would any answer suffice?  She quite possibly had a terrible day, but rather than stroke the cat as most of us would have and probably felt just that little better, she put it in the bin.  Or perhaps she does just hate cats.  Either way, the why was irrelevant.  She will now and forever more be the cat bin lady.  Which could be preferable to being known as a cat lady when you think about it, who knows.

As you'll probably know by now, my own views on social media are roughly akin to both Ronson and Curtis's.  Yes, it can all too easily become an echo chamber, but then most of us don't like having our thoughts and opinions challenged in the first place.  Hence we buy that paper, we read that website, we turn our noses up at their rivals and so on.  Far more pernicious to me at least is not the vehemence with which a transgression against something might be pursued, so much as the effect it's had on activism.  On the one hand it's turbo-charged many campaigns, had a major role in the Arab spring, etc.  On the other, as Curtis points out, what is there to show for the vast majority of hashtag battles?  Not just the obvious examples for mocking, such as #bringbackourgirls or #kony2012, but what about #occupy?  Apart from giving us the 99%/1% identifiers, what did it really change, and is that perhaps not directly connected to the lack of real leadership there so often is behind such Twitter co-ordinated protests?

Curtis doesn't get everything right.  His remark on how in "ten years, sections of the internet will have become like the American inner cities of the 1980s" is just a little behind the times, considering how there have been subcultures online almost exactly as he describes since the late 90s, and you could probably identify similar groupings on BBSes if you so wished.  It's also something of a stretch to point towards "consumer journalism" being a recent thing - Murdoch's Sun was precisely that, long before accusations of dumbing down were bandied about, while the painting of the world as black and white is old as newspapers themselves.

What's so odd and defies explanation is just how quickly the "shaming" aspect of social media has become accepted.  Why should anyone care what a cricketer thinks about people on minimum wage for instance, and why does someone else known for their opinions on Twitter feel the need to dedicate an entire piece to it?  It tells us precisely nothing wider about ourselves, just as Emma West's rant about immigration didn't.  The answer maybe is that rather than giving everyone a voice, what social media has really done is inflate egos yet further and little else, empowering not individuals, but individualism.  This hasn't just happened to the Stuart Broads, the Allsopps, or anyone else you might care to mention, but also those whose reaction to the Sun trolling everyone last week over page 3 was to stamp their feet rather than reflect they had been too quick to assume victory.  More prosaically, another explanation is the encouragement if not active compulsion there now is to share, regardless of whether it's something that should be heard or deserves to be.  When rubbed against not the right to freedom of speech but, hilariously, the "freedom to be offended" as the headline writing sub on Jessica Valenti's latest we're putting an end to every sort of ism through making everyone check their privilege piece put it, increasingly pointless battles are the inevitable result.

As ever, most of the criticisms directed against others can be pointed directly back at myself.  Why moan about people moaning about inconsequential things?  Hasn't writing this crap for the last nigh-on 10 years been all about boosting your ego too?  Who gives a fig what you think about anything?  To which the only answer is: curses, foiled again.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 

Is it that time already?

Gosh, can it really only be 100 days until the election already?  The last 1,727 days have just flown by, have they not?  It seems only last week Dave n' Nick were consummating the coalition deal in the rose garden, except what if they didn't and it was all just boasting?  Perhaps if we end up with much the same result as last time we'll have Tory leader Boris Johnson renouncing the coalition mid-term on the basis Clegg really did have relations with Dave despite his denials.  Is that a convoluted enough non-gag that doesn't work referencing Wolf Hall and Tudor history for you?  I sure hope so.

We could do with a politician much like Hilary Mantel's depiction of Thomas Cromwell, that's for sure.  Ruthless but compassionate, dedicated to his masters yet ferociously independent, against lunatic foreign adventures and depraved and corrupted religious scroungers, what's not to like?  Well, you could factor in the real Cromwell almost certainly wasn't as enigmatic as Mantel paints him in her wonderful novels (I must thank a certain someone whose sort of recommendation finally persuaded me to stop my procrastinating and read them), more a brutal cove who introduced the first sort of intelligence service, enabling Henry to become a tyrant, but all the same.  He rather puts Dave, Ed, Nick and Nige in a certain perspective, doesn't he?  Son of a blacksmith, did a real job abroad before entering law, a man truly out of time.

Anyway, enough wishful thinking and putting off discussing our rather sadder reality.  In truth, no one except those paid to be have been remotely interested in the campaigning thus far.  This might have something to do with how dismal it's all been.  We've had the Tories release their don't vote Labour and drive advert, or whatever it was, which the Lib Dems have since parodied.  Without inserting a joke sadly, although some might say, ho ho, they are the joke.  Both Labour and the Conservatives are hoping to attract your attention with a set of themes, even though we all know it's going to be NHS, NHS, NHS from Miliband and pals and, economy, economy, economy from Dave and friends.  Ed was duly at the site of the first NHS hospital today, while yesterday dearest Cameron was explaining how thanks to them every man, woman and child can look forward to tax cuts, provided they're hard-working men, women and children, naturally.  If they aren't, and they're naughty workshy layabouts, the benefit cap will drop 3 grand almost immediately after a Tory victory, while unemployed under-21s will also be denied housing benefit.

The Conservatives are forewarning everyone at least.  Any questioning of just what sort of jobs have been created under the coalition is jumped on as being dismissive of "aspiration".  Heaven forfend for instance that a business leader of the future might have been able to launch their enterprise sooner if they hadn't been stuck on zero-hours work, saving the little they could, or indeed needed housing benefit to be able to escape a home life from hell.  The message from here until May the 7th will be we've sort of stabilised the economy, so just put all the unpleasantness of the past few years at the back of your mind and try not to think of the cuts to come.  Cuts which George Osborne in best infuriating fashion succeeded in not outlining in last week's interview with Evan Davis, falling back on the old no one thought we could achieve the cuts we have made argument, so obviously we can hack and slash without anyone suffering in the next 5 years also.

Nor would Labour under Ed Miliband be the party we've come to shake our heads about sadly without an old Blairite figure turning up and dripping poison.  Labour is running a "pale imitation of the 1992 campaign", says Alan Milburn, which is just a bit rich considering it was a certain Alan Milburn behind 2005's phenomenal "forward not back" Labour election campaign.  His warning of the party being seen as not in favour of reform and just putting in more funding would carry more weight if Labour was promising increased spending, except they aren't.  Only the Lib Dems say they'll find the minimum £8 billion NHS head Simon Stevens believes is needed, and they all but needless to say have not given the first indication of where they'll get it from.

Speaking of which, have the Liberal Democrats started campaigning yet?  One might assume if they have they're keeping a low profile due to how utterly ashamed they are over the party's strategy:  neither "reckless" borrowing or reckless cuts, you can rely on the Lib Dems to keep those wild crazies in Labour and the Conservatives on the straight and narrow.  This presumes the public give the party credit for reining in the Tories worst excesses, except they don't, nor has the experience of coalition led many to want the same thing again.  Or at least not with the involvement of the Lib Dems, who surely must be getting extremely worried they could end up with fewer seats than the SNP and back in the wilderness years of the 70s prior to the SDP-Liberal alliance.  That would be quite the legacy for Nick Clegg, to go down not so much marching towards the sound of gunfire as leading his party off Beachy Head.

One thing Cameron must be given credit for is just how successful his kill the debates gambit has been.  As soon as the broadcasters suggested including UKIP, as they simply couldn't resist the prospect of bar room bore Nige shaking things up, they ought to have known every other smaller party would say hang on.  Rather than just invite the Greens as Cameron insisted, and say it's daft including the nationalist parties when they don't fricking stand candidates outside of their respective countries we now have the SNP and Plaid Cymru involved.  Why not the DUP and Sinn Fein?  Why indeed?  While we're at it, why not also Mebyon Kernow, Britain First, the Monster Raving Loonies, the Natural Law party or any other gobshite?  Does anyone honestly believe a 7-leader or more debate or debates is viable?  Of course they don't, just as the "empty chair" threat is precisely that.  Without Cameron there aren't going to be debates, and so his terms with minor concessions, probably a couple of debates, one between him and Miliband, one also with Clegg, one before April and one during, will probably win out.

All in all, it's shaping up to be an extraordinarily tedious, long-winded and highly familiar campaign.  Much like something something you might add.  Except, I wondered, perhaps not.  Looking at today's Sun front page, could it be possible the paper had finally, genuinely opened up itself to the views of its readers as suggested?  Err, no.  Sun readers apparently want the BBC cut down to size, and also think politicians should ignore the Twitter mob, among other priorities that just happen to also be the paper's long-term concerns.  Interesting at least the Sun is so exercised about Twitter demanding attention; in the past of course it was the Sun politicians listened to.  Not everything remains the same.

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Monday, January 26, 2015 

TV review (of sorts): Bitter Lake.

It's perhaps something of an exaggeration to say there's been a critical backlash against Adam Curtis of late, but no longer have his films been almost universally applauded by those vaguely on the left.  Certainly, his five-minute slot in Charlie Brooker's 2014 Wipe was met by just as much befuddlement as it was adulation by those who see Curtis as something of a prophet, just as Chris Morris once was.  Morris of course responded to this unwanted status with Nathan Barley, co-written with Brooker, with it being difficult not to see the character Dan Ashcroft, a writer admired by idiots who declares he's not a "preacher man" as partly formed by Morris's own anxieties.

In truth, much of this backlash has been due to the decline in quality of Curtis's work.  He without doubt peaked with Century of the Self, which as an introduction into how the work of Freud, Jung and Laing among others was appropriated by business and politics is hard to beat.  Power of Nightmares, despite the brickbats thrown at it continues to stand up, but with The Trap, despite remaining a work of the kind you simply don't get on TV, the rot set in.  All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace followed, and while by no means bad, it just didn't hold up against what had come before.

The main criticisms of Curtis's style of documentary, that he covers up a lack of original ideas and content with inspired music choices and use of stock footage unlikely to have been seen before has been somewhat answered by his irregularly updated blog.  While the questions remain over his answers or lack of them, what can't be complained about is the way he draws you in through his prose, without there being any need to watch the clips accompanying the text.  With the apparent full BBC archive at his disposal, with all the oddities and forgotten shows contained therein, one post resurrects a 70s documentary on the Hells Angels while the next might be about vegetables.  Yes, really.

The announcement that Bitter Lake would only be available on the iPlayer then, and would clock in at just over 2 hours 15 minutes, allowing Curtis to create something not "restrained by the rigid formats and schedules of network television" set alarm bells ringing.  Curtis's past work hasn't shown any indication of being restrained by exactly those forces, which is precisely why so many of us boring gits loved them: long-form documentaries, set to ambient/electronic music, dealing with ideas rarely so much as broached on mainstream television, let alone in depth or with the allowed space to make up your own mind.  One word instantly came to mind: indulgence.  Much as we might delight in TV that plays out a story over 6 or 10 weeks, there's also nothing quite like a 90 minute nuts and bolts film that does the job and then gets its coat.  Editors are often there for very good reasons (ahem).

Sadly, those suspicions were very much confirmed by Bitter Lake.  This isn't to say that in spots it's very, very good: it draws heavily on a number of posts Curtis has made on his blog on Afghanistan, and coming the week the Saudi king finally did the decent thing, prompting our freedom loving leaders to go and pay their respects, the emphasis on how the kingdom has spread the Wahhabist doctrine which so underpins jihadism is very welcome.  Curtis makes extensive use of the footage shot by BBC cameramen in Afghanistan that has never previously been seen, the rushes normally consigned to the cutting room floor.  If nothing else, this does a service to the men and women behind the equipment who rarely get any credit, something now rectified when they journey alongside TV hacks into warzones at least.  As you'll no doubt expect from a Curtis film, some of this footage is extremely banal while other clips are little short of breath-taking: we see Afghan soldiers dancing to a lone, virtuoso trumpeter; a British soldier coaxes a tame pigeon, probably an escaped pet, first off his gun onto his hand, stroking its breast, before it jumps onto his helmeted head, to the absolute wonder and delight of the infantryman; American and British troops whoop up airstrikes on the enemy; and the attempted assassination of Hamid Karzai is witnessed by a cameraman just feet away from the former president, his security team all but abandoning him as he lays on the seat of his SUV.

The problem is this footage takes up far more of the running time than would ever be allowed on TV for good reason.  As beguiling as it often is, it doesn't add anything to the narrative, which is extremely sparse for the first 90 minutes.  The question then is whether it adds anything to a documentary you have to make an active choice to watch, and even on that score much of it doesn't.  For every one piece that does push it forward, such as the remarkable archive of a British student teaching a class of Afghans about Duchamp's urinal, something that came about as part of the post-invasion this is wot Western education is about like initiative, to their bewilderment and the student's own realisation she's wasting her time, the assumptions of all being challenged and judged, there's 5 clips that just drag.  It all feels disjointed, and seeing as Curtis's thesis is that Western politicians responded to the crises of the 70s, caused in part by the empowerment of Saudi Arabia, with a simplification of everything down to good and evil, often his narration of how this came to be is guilty of precisely the same thing.

It's especially a shame as within the running time there's a couple of hour-long documentaries that ought to be made.  The first on how the West's relationship with Saudi Arabia has and continues to shape policy; and the second on how the British presence in Afghanistan descended into such ignominy, with the army gamed into attacking anyone they were told were Taliban, such was the incompetence of those in charge.

Bitter Lake does nonetheless succeed in showing the way history has repeated in that benighted country.  The Afghan king first sought out American help to develop his nation, before then playing off the Americans and Russians against each other.  As drop-out Westerners journeyed to the country in the 70s in search of something different, Afghans educated in the West brought left-wing radicalism back with them.  Neither their idea of what freedom was, nor that of the Russians when they intervened or ourselves has taken root.  Western ideals of human rights and equality rubbed up against the fundamentalism of the madrasas funded by the Saudis, regardless of whether the West supported the mujahideen in the 80s, or opposed its spawn in the 2000s.

This doesn't however prove Curtis's point: regardless of the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, the mere dropping of demanding the immediate removal of President Assad from power in Syria doesn't mean this dilution of everything into absolutes has been abandoned.  Policy on Syria continues to make not the slightest bit of sense when the "good" rebels are set to be trained to fight the "bad" ones.  Indeed, the only possible outcome would appear to be that which befell Kabul in the 90s: the destruction of everything with the eventual victors likely to be the most ruthless of all.  We continue to oppose the enemies of the Saudis whether it's in our interests or not, for which see the way the oil price is being used against Iran as we're trying desperately to reach a deal over their nuclear programme.  Whether this makes either Iran or Russia more belligerent or more inclined to reach a compromise we don't and can't possibly know.

In the meantime we'll go on telling ourselves we're on the side of the good regardless of our actions, we'll make idols out of schoolgirls to make ourselves feel better, and we'll do as little as possible to examine the mistakes we've made.  For all the criticisms of Curtis and the failings of Bitter Lake, his work continues to take viewers places others fear to go, and few pose the questions he does to such a wide audience.  His answers and conclusions may be faulty, but whose aren't?

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Friday, January 23, 2015 


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Thursday, January 22, 2015 

What the Dickens?

The death of former home secretary Leon Brittan has been met with dismay by campaigners for a full inquiry into historic allegations of child sexual abuse.

"Firstly, I’d like to offer my condolences to Sir Leon’s family for their personal loss," said Simon Danczuk, MP for North Salem and Lower Pendle.  "I do however believe his death is just the latest example of the horrifying lengths to which the establishment is going to cover-up its role in the sickening abuse of children.  It's no coincidence so many of those allegedly involved in the depravity and murders at Elm Guest House are now dead, as they would rather be in their graves than face justice or questions on what they knew and when they knew it.  Brittan's death from "cancer" needs to be confirmed by post-mortem if abuse survivors are to be convinced this isn't just another convenient get-out by someone with a case to answer."

Asked if Brittan might have been able to give evidence prior to his death if the first two appointees to head the overarching inquiry hadn't been forced to step down over their own establishment status and links to the former home secretary, Danczuk was indignant.  "The only person responsible for the hold up is Theresa May.  Her complete incompetence, not to mention arrogance in failing to put forward a truly independent chair, someone such as myself for instance, as well as refusing to give the inquiry statutory powers demonstrates how only survivors' groups can be relied upon to get at the truth."

Any sceptics who find it strange no one saw fit to file a copy of Geoffrey Dickens' dossier on establishment paedophiles, whether it be Dickens himself, his allies or the newspapers that reported on the allegations are clearly in league with those involved in the cover-up, and will probably die of "cancer" like Brittan before they can be held accountable.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015 

And we're back in the room.

A scary thought: we're closing in on the 12th anniversary of the start of the 2nd Iraq war.  A mundane reality: we're currently involved in the 3rd Iraq war, albeit against the self-proclaimed Islamic State rather than the Iraqi one.

Those wars are of course inextricably linked, just as they are to the first Gulf war, the one which arguably set the tone for the conflicts we've seen post-Cold War.  Good ol' Saddam miscalculated in the belief that no one would mind if he gobbled up Kuwait; after all, didn't he fight the good fight against the Iranians for us?  Sadly for him, the last thing the Saudis were going to stand for was a rival to their regional hegemony, and so in came the Americans, with ourselves alongside naturally.  Plenty of cringing Iraqi conscripts were incinerated in the name of freedom, Saddam was redesignated as worse than Hitler, and Iraq became the country of choice for lobbing cruise missiles at whenever there was a need for a distraction from domestic politics.

Until 9/11, when it was decided evil dictators could no longer be contained lest they provide sanctuary for evil terrorists.  Unfortunately, about the worst terrorist in residence in Iraq other than, err, Saddam himself was Abu Nidal, and even someone as bloodthirsty as he palled compared to al-Qaida.  Instead the debate focused around weapons of mass destruction, for what even at the time was described as "policy reasons".  Fact was, Saddam had to go.  Less thought was put into the post-war planning, something we're still living with the consequences of today.

Oh, and there's also been an inquiry looking into all this.  Frankly, I'd forgotten.  Not because the Chilcot report won't be important, because it will.  It just won't tell us anything we don't know already, or at least shouldn't know.  A true acknowledgement of the unmitigated disaster of the Iraq war simply isn't possible, as it would mean almost every single politician and almost every single establishment figure and institution admitting they either got it wrong then or have learned precisely nothing since.  Besides, the Chilcot inquiry was not established to do any such thing: it was meant, as state approved inquiries into complete and utter fuck-ups are, to look at everything that happened and then make a few recommendations that can be safely ignored or overruled on the grounds of government every so often needing to let off steam by chucking high explosives into foreign shitholes.

The reaction to the news the report will not be published until after the election is highly similar to that of the Sun dropping page 3 girls.  You'd think in an era when you can within a couple of clicks see a woman in exchange for meagre payment perform some of the most degrading sexual acts imaginable that a newspaper deciding not to show naked breasts wouldn't exactly be classed as a feminist triumph (the more reflective might also wonder if the diminishing market for softcore modelling might in the long run lead to more women having to go down the hardcore route), but then nothing really surprises any more.  It's a conspiracy!  It must be published now, regardless of how that would be against the very law governing such inquiries!  It's going to be a whitewash!  It's all Tony Blair's fault!  It's all Labour's fault!

And so depressingly on.  The focus on Blair just proves what this has been about from the beginning.  It's not about seeing Iraq for what it was, a culmination of mistakes by every arm of government, not to forget the role of the media or the public for that matter, let alone an examination of how there came to be a consensus on foreign policy which is bomb first, bomb often and only then wonder if there might be consequences down the line, it's about trying to nail custard to the wall.  Even if the report says Blair took Britain to a war on a lie, which it won't, his excellency will say he did what he thought was right.  He doesn't just still believe in the war, he's partial to more on the same model.  Nothing is going to change the mind of a true believer.

The reason for the delay is staring everyone in the face too.  It wasn't Blair or the others involved in the "Maxwellisation" process holding it up, it was the Cabinet Office, the securocrats and the Americans.  The public can't possibly know what a former president and a former prime minister said to each other 12 years on, no way, however fundamental it may or may not be to how the decision to go to war came to be made.  The metadata of everyone's online activity must be accessible by the state in order to protect us, but when it comes to transparency over the act that has done more than anything to increase that danger, you can whistle for it.

Whatever the conclusions the inquiry reaches, minds were made up long ago, mine included.  This isn't going to be a Bloody Sunday or a Hillsborough, where the sheer force of evidence alters perceptions, despite it already having been there had you looked for it.  While I seriously doubt the report would change anyone's vote, there is still a minority that regard Iraq as Labour's ultimate betrayal, holding it against the party despite nearly all those involved either having left parliament or exiting this year.  You only have to see the Lib Dems, SNP and UKIP jockeying for the slightest advantage to realise just the one party has something to lose.  We've waited this long to be disappointed, let down, have our prejudices confirmed; being deprived a few more weeks, months, years isn't going to make the slightest difference now.

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Monday, January 19, 2015 

Pickled politics.

There's a simple reason as to why the Pickles letter to mosques has received the reaction it has: it's not so much due to the content, questionable as it is, as to how it's astonishingly badly written (PDF).  It appears to have been composed by someone who has the basics of English down, only without knowing what the words they're using mean.  Supposedly meant as reassurance, it comes across instead as sterile in its sentiments while demanding in what it asks.  We must show our young people this, this and this; you have an important responsibility in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be a part of British identity; we have an opportunity to demonstrate the true nature of British Islam today, and what being a British Muslim means today.  British values are Muslim values.

In so many ways, it's an example of how government thinking doesn't change.  It clearly wasn't meant to suggest imams aren't doing enough to emphasise how you can be a Muslim and thoroughly British; it just comes across that way because there's nothing Eric Pickles likes more than talking at people rather than talking with them.  It also shows how engrained communalism is, government reaching out solely to religious leaders still considered the equivalent of communicating with an entire minority.  Those already radicalised or most vulnerable to extremism are far more likely to listen to their parents than leaders at the mosque they may well have already clashed with, but of course they are the ones who must do this and must do that.  To be patronising, tone deaf and worse than useless at the same time takes particular skill though, for which much credit must go to the communities department.

After all, where do you even begin with the melange of Britishisms Pickles throws at the wall in the hope of some of them sticking?  What is British identity?  What is a British Islam, a British Muslim?  What are British values, and how can they be Muslim values at the same time?  I don't have the first idea, because almost every single person will respond in a different way, which if you were being charitable you could say would be very British.  The government itself doesn't know either, as we saw when they demanded schools teach British values in the aftermath of the Trojan Horse panic; err, it's the rule of law, democracy, free speech, that sort of thing.  Except we're more than happy to waive all three of those core values if necessary, especially if it means continuing to ally with the country more responsible than any other for the spread of extremist Islam, say.  Of those three values, only democracy is truly embedded in British society and generally respected, with the other two often deemed surplus to requirements, the rule of law especially if it gets in the way.  And free speech only goes so far, as we've gone over enough recently.

If you wanted to be additionally glib, you could say asking how faith in Islam can be a part of British identity is very much unBritish in itself.  We just get on with it, and considering the potential there has been for unrest over identity and integration, for the most part we've done pretty well so far.  Not for us the neuroses of the French, with the rise of the far-right and warnings about the simmering radicalism of the banlieues, although for all the mocking of the idea of Birmingham being an outpost of the caliphate it would be absurd to ignore completely how in some areas a very conservative interpretation of Islam is the norm, with all that entails both for women and rebellious youth.

It was all so very different at yesterday's Countering Anti-Semitism event in London.  No opaque statements about demonstrating how faith in Judaism can be a part of British identity, despite the  government acknowledging acts of extremism are not representative of Judaism, probably because it was Theresa May on duty rather than Pickles.  May instead courted votes, saying how she never thought she would see the day when members of the Jewish community would express fears about staying here.  Rather than perhaps allay those fears by pointing out how there is no specific threat at the moment to anyone, May went on to quote the French prime minister who spoke of how if 100,000 Jews left France the French republic would be judged a failure, pointed remarks that alluded directly back to the Vichy regime.  Repeating that same message except with France replaced with Britain doesn't then really work, and May then blunted it further by saying without all the other religious minorities Britain also wouldn't be Britain.  Nor would it without foreign students then, right?  As for whether Britain will still be Britain without page 3 girls, who knows?

The idea that perhaps this fearmongering over the perceived threat to Jews might be precisely what the extremists want doesn't seem to occur.  It also further highlights how specific targets can have a more dramatic impact than indiscriminate attacks, giving ideas to so-called "lone wolves".  The additional patrols being introduced, while in some cases a sensible precaution if used temporarily, can also lead to the exact opposite of the intended effect, or indeed, perhaps that response is exactly what is intended.

Certainly when last night's 10 O'Clock news dedicated almost 15 minutes to varying reports either directly on or connected to Islamic extremism, including a mother complaining about how she had received no help from the government on "deradicalising" her son after he returned from Syria, it's not difficult to see why some believe an attack is inevitable.  The challenges of radicalisation cannot be dealt with from Whitehall alone, wrote Pickles, in stating the bleeding obvious mode.  Perhaps Whitehall could at least try and deal with the root causes of the current anxiety though, which sadly involves reiterating once again just how counter-productive our policy on first Iraq and now Syria has been.  The blame however rests only with "these men of hate [who] have no place in our mosques or any place of worship" (Pickles again).  Good to know that you don't need to so much as be a Muslim to declare takfir, and I look forward to our Eric deciding in the future just who can and who can't be admitted to a Sikh temple also.  Clearly, as David Cameron declared, it's me rather than Pickles with the problem.

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Friday, January 16, 2015 


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Thursday, January 15, 2015 

Tout est pardonné.

One wonders if prior to the last week quite so many people have previously tried to make their minds up over political cartoons where the punchlines are delivered in a language they don't speak and the topics are often directly related to events in that foreign country.  I don't speak French, my only real knowledge about Charlie Hebdo prior to last Wednesday was it's a satirical weekly that had published caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, and so I laid off reaching a definite conclusion on that basis.

Thankfully, some helpful people have translated the most widely circulated examples of Charlie Hebdo's content, and put them in their proper context.  Accordingly, the cartoon of Boko Haram's pregnant sex slaves demanding welfare, much pointed towards as an example of just how shockingly racist the paper was, is in fact mocking the standard right-wing obsession with immigrants/refugees claiming benefits.  We see alleged comedian Dieudonné, arrested this week over his comments about being "Charlie Coulibably", to understandable consternation over his right to offend not being protected, told where he can stick his quenelle gesture.  And for anyone repeating the claim the paper targeted Islam and Muslims above and beyond other faiths, a front page from 2011 is shown, which advocates flushing the Bible, Qu'ran and Talmud down the toilet, itself a response to a print of the Piss Christ artwork being vandalised in Avignon.

Instead of accept he might have got it wrong this time, lenin/Richard Seymour has instead doubled down.  It doesn't matter that you can detest the way the French state has appropriated the murders, be disgusted at how foreign leaders who care nothing for freedom of speech and have much blood on their hands were at the front of Sunday's march, and be concerned about whether the attacks will see a further ratcheting up of tension and discrimination against Muslims, and still also defend freedom of expression and pledge solidarity with those targeted.  But no, apparently Charlie Hebdo's scrawls were not satire but childish scribblings, and if you find them funny, witty or apposite you too are a child, or a moron.  How could anyone find a cartoon which draws on the "Muhammad was a paedo" school of Muslim-baiting satisfying?

Unless of course that self-same cartoon is again ripping the piss out of those idiots, which is the only conclusion that can be reached by seeing just the translation, let alone any further context.  Yes, you could say "pot kettle black" on that front and criticise the cartoonist for daring to think his work is above that of the "anti-jihadists" who really do just hate Muslims, but aren't we getting just a little bit haughty ourselves here?  Is "high-brow" satire the only satire it's OK to like, which itself is often based around imagery just as much as showing politicians and celebrities up as thoughtless idiots who believed what they wanted to?  Does it really need the Pope to step in and say please don't be beastly about religion as it hurts people's feelers for it become apparent that if freedom of speech means anything it's to say and depict things others don't want to hear or see, regardless of their position in society?

Tout est pardonné regardless.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015 

Mass debating the debates.

Is there anything more thrilling, more guaranteed to get the pulses racing than a debate about having debates?  Does parliament get any more electrifying than when the back and forth is effectively the equivalent of two eight-year-olds saying I know you are but what am I?  Could the public, supposedly completely engaged and at one with the leaders demanding the debates take place, in fact be any less interested by this cavalcade of nonsense, from both the political parties and the broadcasters?  Is that enough rhetorical questions for an opening paragraph?  (Yes. Ed.)

Christ alive.  If anything, what I find most perplexing about this entire farrago is the insistence, best expressed by Roger Mosey, that "In a short time, television debates have become a vital part of our democracy".  To which I say: bollocks.  What they most certainly have become is very lucrative indeed for the broadcasters, especially when budgets have been slashed for news gathering in general.  Why bother to follow the party leaders around the country on the campaign trail when you can let a skeleton crew do that and instead concentrate on those heavyweight clashes between the big three, or indeed four, or even five?  David Cameron is of course prevaricating over the inclusion of the Greens when he just doesn't want to take part as there is no possible way he could gain from the debates unless Farage shoots Clegg and Miliband dead while a bodyguard takes the bullet intended for him, but all he's really doing is reverting back to practice before 2010.

What's more, there's a decent case to be made for having no debates at all, or just the one between Cameron and Miliband.  Everything about our political system makes the presidentialising (or infantilising, if you prefer) of party leaders problematic.  Just look at the outcome in 2010: "Cleggmania" led to the Lib Dems increasing their share of the vote, only for the way those ballots were spread across the country to mean the party in fact lost seats.  However you try to dress it up, come May we'll be casting votes not for a party leader, but a party's local candidate.  Only those lucky enough to live in Witney, Doncaster North or Sheffield Hallam will have the chance to personally support one of the big three. 

For all the uncertainties over the election outcome, there's also no doubt the prime minister will either be from the Conservatives or Labour.  Unlike in presidential systems, our party leaders also do regularly go up against one another, although the quality of their tete a tete's are not always as high as they could be.  True, they rarely face questions direct from the public, but it's also not as if they won't have answered the ones set to be posed dozens of times before.  There's something to be said for taking a leader out of their comfort zone and seeing if they get agitated or crumble under studio lights, and they clearly serve a purpose for all those smart enough not to follow politics or the news in any great depth, but otherwise they are supremely overrated and over analysed events.

Whether they suck the life out of the campaign as a whole though, as Cameron is felt to believe the debates did in 2010 is more open to question.  Also different this year is the campaigns have already effectively started; most people won't be taking any notice till around the start of April, it's true, but can anyone really say they're looking forward to Cameron then repeating for the umpteenth time it's a choice between competence or chaos?

Besides, this isn't for once a mess of the big three's making.  The broadcasters must have known the second they started making plans for Nigel every other smaller party would demand they get a hearing too.  Invite him and you surely have to invite the Greens; invite the Greens and you may as well get the SNP and Plaid Cymru in too, as otherwise they'll start whinging despite not standing candidates outside of Scotland or Wales.  As to whether this makes the entire thing even more ridiculous, or impossible to contain to 90 minutes, let's worry about that nearer the date.  Oh, except this provided Cameron with his excuse to back out.

Only now comes the call for the broadcasters to go ahead without Cameron should he continue to refuse to attend.  Really?  This isn't HIGNFY where Roy Hattersley can be replaced by a tub of lard with hilarious consequences, it would render the entire spectacle completely pointless, a bit like those wonderful debates between Clegg and Farage last year that no one watched.  If the incumbent doesn't go along with it, it snookers the entire process,  and would surely also be unfair to Clegg, who'll be left having to defend the coalition at the same time as he'd like to be distancing himself from it.  For all the half serious half snide remarks about how without Natalie Bennett the debate would be one between four men on the centre-right, it would also result in Clegg and Miliband ganging up on Farage, which if they sat back and thought it through is unlikely to help them much either.

Surely the best solution is as the Graun suggests, for ITV to call Cameron's bluff and invite Bennett regardless of what Ofcom's final decision is.  If they won't, and the wider media really is sincere about this being what the public expect now and the very essence of democracy and so on, they should step into the breach themselves.  Otherwise, is it really unimaginable for there to be a campaign which doesn't revolve around the leaders and instead is about, horror of horrors, policy?  Would it be possible for the manifestos to be somewhat gone over and compared with each other, for instance, or even a series of films on what the issues are in different constituencies across the four nations?  Are we back asking rhetorical questions again?  (Yes. Ed.)

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Tuesday, January 13, 2015 

Comedy, satire and subjectivity. Oh, and Charlie Hebdo.

Watching Emily Maitlis interview Dapper Laughs, aka Daniel O'Reilly last year in the immediate aftermath of his ITV2 show being cancelled after everyone realised his act was fairly repugnant, I was left incredulous at how O'Reilly refused to defend himself.   Perhaps we should have been tipped off by his wearing of the black turtleneck of regretfulness, but nonetheless.  Maitlis, reasonably enough, clearly felt nothing but utter contempt for Mr Laughs' brand of humour, and so went in for the kill.  His response to Maitlis using his own gags against him was to visibly shrink, mutter the odd apology and then explain he was killing off Herr Laughs with immediate effect.

The obvious retort to Maitlis and everyone else was, you might not like my act, but who are you to say what is and isn't comedy, as you seem to be?  One of the very qualities that make us human is our ability to make a joke out of anything and everything, whether it be murder, rape, the Holocaust, or indeed toasters.  Criticising stand-ups is very different to saying an entire subject cannot be joked about; just as it ought to have been apparent Senor Laughs' shtick wasn't worthy of a TV series on quality grounds, that's quite separate to demanding his tour be pulled also.

Most of us will have experienced being the only person in a group not laughing at some grand cultural soiree we've attended.  It happened to me when I by chance saw Kunt and the Gang in a local pub, whose act revolves around much use of naughty words in songs about sex.  His best known is "I have a little wank and I have a little cry", Mr Kunt's lyrics accompanied by little more than Bontempi keyboard.  I'm as easily amused by a stream of filth as the next man, but I was left entirely stony-faced by it all, baffled as to the uproarious response he was getting.  It might be that I like my crude humour to be delivered along with something approaching pathos, the exact thing Viz has been doing now for nigh-on 30 years.  Not so much from the titular (boom boom) Fat Slags, but definitely from 8 Ace or the Drunken Bakers.  Without that subtext, a song about giving in to demands for anal sex remains just that.

I was reminded of this on reading the Graun's panel verdict on Charlie Hebdo's front cover.  To Myriam Francois-Cerrah the very depiction of a brown man in a turban is racist, without so much as going in to how the caricature is meant to be Muhammad.  Her kind of satire is "the type that punches up".  Leaving aside how the vast majority of us are relying on differing accounts of Charlie Hebdo, with a former writer claiming it to have become racist, while others disagree, the best satirists aim their barbs at everything that is deserving of being laughed at.  If that's politicians, then great.  If it's religion, regardless of how that might also involve "mocking the faith of the descendants of immigrants largely locked out of power and experiencing acute levels of prejudice", then so be it.

As for Nabila Ramdani, to her the cover is "dated, tired ... and vaguely insults one of the most revered figures in Islam".  She doesn't explain how it vaguely insults Muhammad, probably because for the life of me I cannot see how it can be taken as such unless the very depiction of Muhammad is deemed insulting.  Or is it that Muhammad holding the "Je suis Charlie" banner is insulting when he would never have ascribed to the paper's values?  If it's the former, complaining about the style of the caricature is a bit like saying Private Eye's jokes are the same every fortnight; well, duh, that's rather the point.  It's also "a hugely provocative reminder of how muddled the debate ... has become".  It rather depends on just how outraged you want to be: there's nothing there to say it's Muhammad except that was the artist's intention.  The very fact it's drawn in the same way as the previous caricatures of Muhammad, which all had a satirical message targeting extremists, along with the text all is forgiven ought to make clear the intention is to be both defiant while not blaming anyone other than the killers themselves, and even their actions are not to be held against them.

There is naturally an argument to be had over whether the wider media would reproduce caricatures scatologically mocking other religions say, especially in the United States.  It seems odd however that even here the likes of the Graun feel the need to carry a warning that some may find a mere thumbnail of Charlie Hebdo's cover offensive.  If they do, isn't that rather their problem?  Is there not something completely irrational about taking offence at what is just a drawing of a man in a turban, nothing more, nothing less?  To Joseph Harker this is "trumpeting your rights by trampling over others' sensitivities".  That view might hold more weight if this was being done for the sake of it but the artist, Renald Luzier's, explanation of how it came about surely demonstrates that wasn't the case at all.  Charlie Hebdo's cartoons have always been about something, rather than meant to just provoke, as say the Jesus and Mo strips are.  Hebdo's cause was never taken up by the same dullards and self-promoters as Jesus and Mo was, further bringing home this is something different.

The more anally retentive have spent the last few days pointing out how there is no such thing as a complete right to freedom of speech, nor should there be.  There are laws against incitement and hatred for good reason.  Is it too much to suggest we have perhaps moved too far against a presumption in favour of free speech though, such has been the wish not to offend, to respect sensitivities, without those good intentions being the same thing as political correctness?  The vast majority of people in this country seem to have no problem with the prosecution of Matthew Woods say, who didn't get the celebrity backing afforded to Paul Chambers, while others got very agitated over idiots burning poppies.  Should it come as a surprise others reject notions of freedom of expression when our approach itself comes across so frequently as contradictory or hypocritical?

In the same way as comedy is always subjective, so too is satire.  If you don't like it, you don't have to watch, read or look at it.  How utterly absurd it seems that obvious sentiment has to be repeated even now.  At times, it really does seem like we haven't made a lot of progress in the last 40 odds years, only now it's the left rather than the right which seems more comfortable with censorship.

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Monday, January 12, 2015 

Charlie sets the example.

It's always reassuring to see just how quickly unity and resistance can be appropriated by the very people who want nothing of the sort.  Call me a negative Nancy, but it's one thing for people to spontaneously come together in silent protest and remembrance, as they did on Wednesday night, and something remarkably different when the state itself then urges everyone to do so.  Martin Rowson's cartoon in the Graun points out how the murdered Charlie Hebdo journalists would have seen the irony in politicians who refuse to endorse freedom of speech being invited to march alongside their fellow leaders, and when it comes to Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas joining the parade, who can't talk to each other but will take part in any opportunity for self-promotion, the bad taste left in the mouth has lingered ever since.

Admittedly, Netanyahu hardly couldn't go considering the racist targeting by Amédy Coulibaly of a kosher supermarket, yet it still didn't feel quite right how the Israel/Palestine conflict, regardless of your personal views on it, without doubt exacerbates tensions in a way little else does.  And let's not pretend Israeli politicians of any stripe have recently attempted to calm such feelings: we only have to recall Netanahyu's response to the murders of three Israeli teenagers, when he called for "God to avenge their blood", to realise it's not just non-state actors that invoke religion when they want to.  There have been criticisms of some of the language used by politicians in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, with questioning even of describing the attacks as "barbaric" considering the word's origins, but European leaders have been moderate in the extreme compared to the rhetoric casually thrown back and forth elsewhere.  The cynical response of the Israeli government to those murders led directly to last summer's Gaza conflict, which in turn sparked the horrified news reports about the rise of anti-semitism in Europe.  Nothing of course justifies racism in any form, but when the Israeli government ostensibly collapsed on the very issue of legislation that would have defined Israel as a Jewish state, those same politicians know the game they are playing.

This said, it would be difficult not to be moved by the size of the crowds on the streets of France yesterday.  One wonders however if this was precisely because all real semblance of meaning had already been stripped from "Je suis Charlie", the marches being little more than a indication that life would carry on as before, as though it wouldn't have done anyway.  You could also if you wanted characterise it as a very French reaction to an attack on France rather than one on "freedom of speech" or "universal values"; demonstrating, marching is in the French national character, going all the way back to 1789, passing 1968 right up to the present day.  It just doesn't seem like something that would ever be repeated here, perhaps you can snidely comment because there isn't any such thing as a British national character, and even if there were it certainly wouldn't involve taking to the streets.

Moreover, for all the angry responses to the Charlie Hebdo attack, including from myself, justified as they were, it should once again bring home just how weak those who have set themselves against the West are.  We can agonise over the alienation, and the sense of dispossession some in marginalised communities feel against the countries they were often born in or which gave them sanctuary, and yet it ought to bring home just how small in the number those who feel this way really are.  Compared to those previously attracted to fascism or communism, neither of which are really comparable to jihadism beyond the utopian, or in practice dystopian ideals at their ideological core, it's indicative of just how easy it is to overhype the threat.  To those in Nigeria, let alone in Syria or Iraq, the last few days seen from the outside must have seemed the epitome of Western solipsism.

As I wrote following the release of the ISC report into the murder of Lee Rigby, we've apparently moved past the point where the threat is spectacular mass casualty bomb attacks to one where it's one or two armed men against the full weight of the state.  One armed man carrying out a spree killing in a heavily populated area is almost impossible to prevent.  In France on Friday we're told 80,000 police officers were mobilised, and Coulibaly still managed to launch his deadly assault on somewhere which made for an obvious target.  All three men were also known to the authorities, as were Rigby's killers.  Rather than this being a failure, as much as it is, it also shows how total security is an impossibility.  If someone is motivated enough, they will act, and they can't always be stopped.

This doesn't though stop the authorities from saying if only they had this power, if they only could do this, we'd all be that much safer.  Andrew Parker's speech on Thursday was coincidental rather than taking advantage, but it was no doubt further weaponised after Wednesday's events.  The cynics amongst us might note how it was the head of GCHQ who first denounced internet companies as effectively being hand in glove with terrorists, with his theme fully approved by the ISC in their Rigby report afterwards, no doubt completely unconnected events.  Now in the aftermath of Parker's sermonising, the same old faces and newer ones with their eyes on a greater prize solemnly agree on how essential it is the intelligence agencies get the ability to do whatever the hell they like, which is without hyperbole what they're demanding.

It doesn't seem to occur that it's the very openness of our society that makes us stronger, not as some would have it, more susceptible.  The sight of military personnel outside Jewish schools, while understandable and probably justified as those connected with the killers are sought, is exactly the sort of change those behind the attack seek.  Something meant to reassure nearly always has the exact opposite effect.  It's a small thing also, but it felt distinctly odd on Friday hearing journalists talk about the killing of the three behind the separate attacks being the "best possible outcome"; surely the best outcome would have been to deny them the martyrdom they sought and to bring them before a court, although that was probably impossible in the case of the Kouachi brothers coming out shooting.  Charlie Hebdo itself provides the example we ought to follow: that of continuing as before while remembering.

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Friday, January 09, 2015 

5 years.

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Thursday, January 08, 2015 

Solidarity is meaningless unless we embrace freedom.

Trust Matt in the Telegraph to come up with one of the saddest, most poignant cartoon tributes to his slain French colleagues.  "Be careful, they might have pens."  With its echoes of a cartoon from Charlie Hebdo which featured a crying Muhammad, distraught at being followed by murderous idiots, it ought to make the minority still criticising the paper and its use of bad taste humour think again.  It didn't care who it offended, and increasingly that seems a quality to be prized rather than critiqued, however much it will be abused by the witless and those seeking controversy for its own sake.

As was predictable, many are falling into the trap set if not by the murderers themselves, who are unlikely to have given any wider thought to how their actions would be reacted to, then by the ideologues who inspire such attacks.  Yesterday's massacre was not an act of war, but it was meant to give that exact impression.  Jihadists know they cannot possibly win in a a straight fight against nearly any even semi-developed state: Islamic State, for its triumphs, is no nearer controlling either Syria or Iraq than it was prior to Western intervention.  Their main aim is to engender the exact response we saw to 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq: draw the West in, wear them down, kill as many soldiers and military contractors as possible, while creating such insecurity that beleaguered communities look to them for protection.

The same principle lies behind symbolic attacks like yesterday's, although none previously have been so professional, so merciless.  We look at the obscene irony of extremists killing people for criticising extremists for killing people, and the first conclusion, a more than reasonable one, is to declare it a war on freedom.  The reality is "they" don't hate us for our freedoms, not least because without those exact freedoms they could not operate as they do, they hate what is against them.  The very nature of takfiri jihadism, as epitomised by Islamic State, is that ideology is secondary to doing whatever they like because they can, as all those who believe power comes directly from the barrel of a gun do.  You'll search in vain for even the most opaque justification for enslaving women in the same way as IS has in the Qu'ran or the hadiths, and IS itself has only about one real Islamic scholar providing justification for their actions, with the other leading jihadist clerics, as shown by their attempts to save the life of Peter Kassig, continuing to oppose what they helped to spawn.

Just as when the predecessor to Islamic State twice attacked the Samarra mosque in Iraq, knowing full well it would intensify the conflict between Sunni and Shia, the ultimate aim of such assaults as well as instilling fear is to tear communities apart, emphasise the differences, to make everyone retreat back into what they know.  Unfortunately for them, the reality is French and British society are both far stronger than the far-right and the extremists believe, as demonstrated by how beyond the outpouring of grief over the murder of Lee Rigby, which saw war memorials across the country festooned with messages and tributes, there was no rise in support for the EDL despite their best efforts, with the result being the all but collapse of the movement.  There will always be knuckledraggers who respond to such attacks by defacing mosques or worst, as there have been in France, yet the true spirit of the nation was shown by the impromptu vigils of last night.  The same goes for the likes of Nigel Farage, with his comments on multiculturalism, as though despite the problems of integration this can all be linked back to "fifth columns" of enemies within, rather than a variant of totalitarian ideology we've fought against before.

Describing jihadism in such terms is undoubtedly to give it a dignity it doesn't deserve.  Stalin joked about how many divisions the Pope had, and you could ask the same of the self-proclaimed caliph.  The threat I wrote about yesterday doesn't come from such weaklings, from such a pitiful belief system, but from how we so easily forget democracy as we know it is such a recent development.  Universal suffrage is not even two centuries old, and despite Fukuyama declaring the End of History so pompously, the West's values having triumphed, the harsher reality is the nation soon to be the world's biggest economy gives no indication of moving towards one person one vote as we recognise it.  Russia under Putin is a democracy in name only, popular support for the president aside, and whereas free speech in the United States is protected by the constitution, in Europe about the best guarantor of liberty is the European Convention on Human Rights, the same one so loathed by the Tories and UKIP.

Combined with how there is no real love for true freedom of speech in this country, having just experienced an entire year that seemed to be nothing other than people taking offence both for the sake of it and to push their own agendas, where making extremely bad jokes on social media can see you fired within hours, or indeed imprisoned, and the picture is not quite as rosy as we'd like to believe.  Solidarity with Charlie Hebdo will not mean anything if we continue to self-censor, as we have, if we go on hounding those who go beyond what we deem "acceptable" rather than just criticising them, if we don't protect our freedoms in the face not of an Islamist assault but of that from securocrats and politicians who say they can deliver safety.  Already tonight MI5 is whinging about its capabilities, losing no time in taking advantage before the initial shock wears off.

A repeat of yesterday's massacre is unlikely.  The mistakes of the past and the now most certainly will be.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2015 

Je suis Charlie.

Cowardly is one of the words universally reached for to describe terrorist outrages.  In many instances, its use doesn't properly convey how while the use of violence against the defenceless can never be justified, someone willing to sacrifice their life for their cause, regardless of how vile that cause may be, can not truly be described as cowardly.  Stupid and self-defeating yes, cowardly no, in the same way there's often an extremely fine line between bravery and being foolhardy.

What is without a doubt cowardly is running someone over and then attempting to decapitate them as they lie unconscious.  What is not is then running at armed police with the intention of being killed, the police to their credit in that instance not giving them their lusted after "martyrdom". 

The absolute definition of cowardly, by comparison, were the actions carried out today in Paris against the journalists of Charlie Hebdo.  With apparent knowledge of when the satirical paper's editorial meeting was being held, 2 men armed with assault rifles massacred 10 people whose only weapons were words, drawings, and ideas.  They were targeted in offices from where there was no easy escape, desks and furniture offering the merest protection.  Then, just to emphasise their brutality, their lack of pity, one of the masked individuals executed an apparently unarmed, already stricken police officer before the group made their getaway.

Everything about the attack suggests this was the work of men with a certain amount of military training, not the "lone wolves" or "self-starters" much warned about.  From the weapons used, the way they were determined to make their escape rather than die in the process, to how the assault was planned somewhat and probably even rehearsed, it points towards funding or at the very least tenuous backing from a foreign jihadist group.  While thoughts immediately turned to Islamic State, or men possibly having returned from Syria, the claim from a witness that one of the attackers said they were from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula makes just as much sense.  All of AQAP's previous attempts to attack the West have involved bombs, and all have either failed or been foiled.  By switching to a guerilla style assault, and against the softest of targets, the chances of another failure were drastically reduced.

The only question then remaining is why specifically go after Charlie Hebdo, "insulting" of the prophet aside, rather than a Mumbai-style attack or a reprise of something like the Taliban attack on the school in Peshawar.  One explanation is Islamic State's brutality and takfirism has succeeded in revolting the Muslim world in a way al-Qaida itself never managed.  Many Sunnis may see the Syrian conflict mainly through the prism of sectarianism, but few look to Islamic State as the best alternative to Assad, even while supporting groups whose ideology is much the same.  Killing those who dared to satirise Muhammad is more defensible than an indiscriminate attack, and it also reannounces AQAP as the only real challenger to IS as the standbearer of the banner of global jihad.

One thing the attackers and their backers will have barely thought about is the consequences.  They have no interest in freedom of thought, of speech, how the only possible response is an outpouring of rage, sadness and defiance at how in the 21st century people are still being targeted, killed for criticising and mocking organised religion.  They care nothing for how their actions only underline the sheer poverty of their unquestionable doctrine, how unutterably weak their prophet and God must be if they can't take being caricatured.  The most powerful entity in all creation, who gave us the power of free will, and yet neither he nor his messenger are to be depicted as anything other than benevolent, peace be upon them.  If they considered it at all, they probably counted on it resulting in the exact soldiarity that has occurred, which will see the cartoons they killed over republished and spread wider than before.

Much will be wrote and already has been written about what the reaction should be, and then those all too familiar axes will be ground, about how all Muslims should condemn the attack without reservation, at how we have much the same extremists in our midst.  It comes at the precise moment when the far-right is on the march, literally in Germany, and as the National Front polls higher than ever in France itself.  The murderers of course have no concern for their co-religionists and the wave of hostility that always follows such outrages, at the same time as they justify their actions in the name of defending the honour of the Ummah.  One reaction that probably won't be noted but deserves to be is how those nations that have done to so much to spread extremist interpretations of Islam will condemn the attack, then carry on just as before, executing "sorcerers", enforcing blasphemy laws and funding "moderate" armed groups of their choosing.

Regular readers will know I'm not one for jumping on bandwagons, for echoing hashtag sentiments.   Tonight though I too am Charlie.  The aphorism that the pen is mightier than the sword is not always true, but what history suggests is the pen triumphs in the end.  The challenge today is to ensure that carries on.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2015 

It was alright in the 2010s.

Tempting as it is to just deride Mark Pritchard's call for the law on anonymity concerning sexual assault to be reviewed, to be falsely accused of anything is, as he says, an awful thing.

Pritchard wasn't really put through what you'd call the wringer, though, let's be clear: he was never charged so he didn't face trial, and  we only learned of his arrest due to the quirk of the arrest of MPs being required to be reported on that day's order papers.  The naming of those arrested but not charged is rare, usually happening only when there is wider media interest, or when someone provides a tip-off.  No, it isn't pleasant to face the uncertainty of not knowing if you'll be charged with something you haven't done, but there are extremely good reasons why those charged should be named, for which see the events of the past couple of years, while the complainant should never be, for which, err, see the events of the past couple of years.

Which brings us, extremely tenuously, to Christmas TV.  It's in part a perennial whinge and a sign I'm getting older, but the fare on offer apart from the terrestrial TV film premieres seemed more dismal than ever.  When the most watched show features a man dressed as a woman falling over and swearing, and the second featured a woman falling over and not swearing while breaking the fourth wall, it's a sign there was some fairly weak sauce being served up.  And indeed, if you didn't get enough of the woman falling over, you could see her falling over also in Call the Midwife, the utterly bizarre drama that sort of does and sort of doesn't sentimentalise the grinding poverty of the East End in the post-war period, and is sort of sick-making and sort of isn't in the same way.

I don't watch a lot of TV, and it's something I credit for my sanity almost remaining in tact. Certainly, if I had nothing better to do than watch dreck like Channel 4's It Was Alright in the 1970s, which I had the misfortune to see a repeat of while flipping through channels one night, and which is, dear reader, the extremely tenuously link to the above, I'd probably be chewing the carpet more than I do already.  Once, we had Days Like These (a UK remake of the US hit That 70s Show), which Lee and Herring were pointing out back in 1999 was comedy at its laziest and most banal, laughing at how things were different in the past, because lol, people styled their hair differently and wore different clothes and did different things.  Then we had I Love the 70s and so on, with celebrity talking heads telling us how great it was to be a kid back then, just as for most people it's great to be a kid regardless, except for those for whom it isn't.

Clearly the format was due a reboot, only with new faces responding with sometimes real and sometimes faked shock and anger
to cherry-picked examples of sexism, racism, dirty old men being perverts, and barely above the age of consent young women, if that, portrayed as gagging for it.  To be fair to the programme makers for a second, it would be foolish to deny there are examples of 70s television retrograde even for the time, or which were obviously misjudged.  Curry and Chips for instance, regardless of Spike Milligan and Johnny Speight's intentions, or the skin crawling example shown of Casanova starring Leslie Phillips, with his fictional niece begging the lothario relative to teach her in the ways of love.

This was then presented though as being part of the explanation for why only now we're discovering the dark side of the period, complete with plentiful backslapping for how much more enlightened we are these days.  Except this line of thought doesn't follow: yes, perhaps TV suggested predatory behaviour was normal, but if that was the case wouldn't there have been a response far sooner?  After all, the rise of alternative comedy at the turn of the decade was as much a response to the overt racism and attitudes of the era's stand-ups as it was politics in general.

Moreover, the slightest evidence of alleged perversion was seized upon, including a conversation lifted from the Likely Lads of the characters discussing being attracted to schoolgirls in uniform, with talk of gymslips and all the rest.  You don't have to be Pamela Stephenson to realise this fetish, if you can even call it that, springs just as much as from young people becoming sexually aware while wearing those same clothes as it does from still being attracted to post-pubescent but underage girls once an adult.  An awful lot of men, and yes women too, are attracted to sexually mature but on the cusp of adulthood young people, it's just something we'd rather not talk about, only acting surprised and outraged when teachers of both sexes are exposed as having had relationships with their pupils.

In general that seemed to be the message the programme was pushing.  It's better not to approach difficult subjects at all than it is to see them broached in comedy; also deemed outrageous was an elderly man complimenting his granddaughter on her looks and talking about sex in general, as old people can't be sexual beings once they reach a certain age.  Old men making comments about or becoming aroused when washed by their young carers or nurses is an everyday occurrence, but that's too icky and embarrassing to so much as think about.  Also picked on was Windy Miller of all things, as in one episode of Camberwick Green he gets drunk on his strong cider; you can object on the grounds he just falls asleep rather than gets in a terrible mess due to his drinking, but really, can kids before a certain age not comprehend or deal with characters in programmes specifically for them imbibing?  Did it result in the children of the time heading straight for the corner shop for a bottle of White Ace, any more than the current generation does?

Besides, are things all that much better today?  Another section of the programme looked at the game shows of the time draping women over the prizes, because that doesn't happen now does it, and we don't have beer advertised by bros playing beach volleyball with sexy ladies in bikinis, or deodorant shown as being so irresistible to the opposite sex that even angels will come down from heaven to bang the bloke on the moped who uses it.  Nor do we have alleged comedians making gags about violently threatening women into showing their breasts mistakenly being given their own TV series.  Yes, TV's so much better now we don't make fun of people on their basis of their skin colour or creed, especially when you can film both the underclass and the stupidly rich to serve the same purpose and describe the former as telling "the stories of the most distressed parts of society", decrying criticism as being an attempt to censor.  As for sexual abuse, that's all in the past too.

Perhaps I took it too seriously, and it was all meant to be a bit of fun to see how TV used to be.  I don't suppose the intention was to treat the viewer as a complete moron, to patronise them, to ram home quite how superior we are now that we're all far more sensitive and considered in our dealings with each other.  That's why Matt Lucas was the narrator.  You know, the comedian who satirised the national character so effectively in Little Britain.  And who blacked up, but in an ironic way.  Forgive me, but I get the impression a commissioner in Horseferry Road is laughing even now.

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